Moderator: Henrietta Zielinski, Bibliographer, School of the Art Institute of
Sponsor: ARLIS/NA New Art Round Table
The "whatness" of art that is designed as ephemeral, art that has the "momentary" aspect as a principal element was the subject of this panel discussion. Participants were asked to address the problems faced in documenting, collecting, preserving and archiving intentionally ephemeral works of art: i.e., those designed for specific time/space constructs, or those which are temporal by nature. Should the ephemeral work be allowed to expire? Can documentation accurately represent art that is intended to be transitory? What is it that is documented -- the moment, its essence, or only a hint of what actually transpires? Should electronic art be captured, downloaded and put through format changes? How do we handle intermedia which deal with processes of change or virtual reality? Do librarians, archivists and curators of collections have the right and/or responsibility to preserve installation art, performance art or other time arts? How can librarians, educators and artists share in documenting and creating access to these types of information? Should libraries act as conventional repositories, or spaces for audience interaction with these materials?
Panelist: Lou Mallozzi, Adjunct Assistant Professor, 4-D, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Founding member and Associate Director, Experimental Sound Studio, Chicago.
Lou Mallozzi began by describing the documentation problems of his last two performances, connecting issues of place, context and reproducibility. The pieces, "Dizzy, Not Dumb" and "Sit close to the fire," are sound-based performances dealing with total darkness. For large parts of each piece, the audience sits in complete darkness. There is an interplay between very slim visual and full aural components. Place is suggested by the word performance. A live performance is normally about physical presence, but in these works the absence of the visual (darkness) demands the construction of a space in the imagination of the individual listener. Mallozzi described his work as "absent spaces and present bodies." Visuality is suspended and then recreated in the mind. Sound becomes an implicit or virtual "stage" -- an illusion that gets wiped out when lights go back on, even momentarily, as they fleeting do during the course of these performances.
A number of (pre-)recorded "media objects" are used in the live presentations, raising questions about the "recordedness of recordings" and about how recorded and live sounds may interact. All of the work that went into making a "media object" what it was originally intended to be is subverted by using it within a live event. Recordings are used to investigate their own nature as recordings during the live performance. The mechanics of recording are also investigated. A microphone is placed in front of a turntable needle. The noise made by the mechanical action of the needle touching vinyl is amplified -- "a notation of a physical inscription." This is a reversal of the intended role of the LP and the turntable.
Similarly, recorded radio works -- originally created for broadcast -- function in entirely different ways in Mallozzi's real-time performances. "Broadcast" means not only reception, but also the act of transmission. How can that act of transmission (or an implicit reference to it) function in this new context? How can it be documented?
What happens when one tries to record the subtle and complex entirety of such a performance for archival purposes? Traditionally documentation is thought to be about clarity. It attempts to defy ambiguity. But much contemporary art is about ambiguity. Can the imperative of clarity be applied to something that intends not to be clear?
Chronicling the layers of events, meanings, sensations and responses at play poses uncommon challenges. Mr. Mallozzi demonstrated his own efforts at documentation. Videotape produces a visual record that is mostly black, while capturing some of what transpires audibly. Audio tape eliminates the subtle optical occurrences, omitting the interplay of sound and vision. Neither method of documentation provides a full account. Both are incapable of capturing some essential elements of the live performance: the closeness of being with others in the dark; what the individuals present construct or recreate in their imaginations. The original event is never fully realized in its subsequent record. Traditional efforts do convey something of the "whatness" of the art event but, as Mallozzi put it, the challenge is to find methods to document the "goneness" of things. "The document usually tries to "fix" what isn't there and can't be by its nature."
The best that one can do is use multiple documentary methods to provide as much information as possible about performances: video and audio tapes, along with realia, written (published or unpublished) records, and any other approaches suggested by a given event. One can attempt to create "a collage of impressions that add up to some notion of what that piece may have been about, rather than a factual rendering."
Panelist: Simon Anderson, Assistant Professor, Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Fluxus scholar working on a biography of George Maciunas.
The small table held only a clock. A man seated himself at the table and produced a drinking glass, a bottle of red wine, a green salad, napkins and utensils. He unfolded a napkin, poured the wine and, lifting his glass, addressed the audience: "Cheers." He began to drink and eat. An interval of time passed. The wine and salad were finished.
The man was Simon Anderson and the work performed was a George Brecht piece called "Two Durations," circa 1963, first published in the Fluxus periodical, Water Yam. Brecht's instructions on the score card for the piece consist of just two words: "red green."
When Brecht composed the score for "Two Durations" he was probably thinking
in terms of colored lights, having worked during the late 1950s as an
"electro-chemist" [sic]. At the same time, Brecht was studying with John Cage.
He had also been inspired by Dr. D.T. Suzuki while at Columbia, according to
Brecht's own notebooks. Suzuki had written about red and green in a Zen
red is red,
green is green,
drawing from an earlier proverb on experiencing the redness of a flower and the greenness of a leaf. Brecht's score provides no further instruction than the words "red" and "green." It is up to the performer to interpret those instructions. In 1972, Takehisa Kosugi performed "Two Durations" by eating a green salad and drinking red wine. Mr. Anderson usually performs the piece at traffic lights, but considered that interpretation rather difficult to carry off within the conference setting.
Brecht is credited with inventing the concept of the "event." He intended that each work should represent a slice of uncontrived life, that each performance come as close to natural events as possible. The artist should let his or her "concentration flow over an event seized from the natural world."
Anderson performed the piece not only to illustrate "the humor, the continuing pertinence, the power of Fluxus events some thirty years after the naming of the idea," but also to demonstrate the practice of art history applied to an ephemeral event (or was it an ephemeral event applied to the practice of art history?). This remaking or reconstructing of events is a potent teaching and learning tool. "More than merely a useful aesthetic device, the re-embodiment of events is absolutely essential to any close understanding of some types of performance art, particularly Fluxus pieces."
Scholars of the movement insist that static, traditional exhibitions of historic Fluxus materials must be accompanied by live events to accurately portray the subject. "Fluxus insists on the obligation of active participation." No matter how sound the catalog essays or how well designed the installations, conventional exhibitions tend to cut the viewer off from what was intended as participatory. Because of concerns over cost and preservation, intimate objects such as score cards and multi-part multiples generally cannot be handled in museums or exhibition halls. While performances in these settings can be expensive, even disastrous, and can annoy and baffle audiences, without performance Fluxus in misrepresented. The spirit of Fluxus commands that "anyone can and probably should perform events at will and often."
Discussing the recent resurgence of interest in Fluxus, Anderson noted that we are still able to enjoy today "that most paradoxical of treasures, original Fluxus artists performing original Fluxus events." Anderson described the calm, concentrated manner of the seminal artists, "the laconic grace of early Fluxus performers." Through guidance from and observation of these artists, accurate "re-embodiments" of earlier events are possible, keeping close to the aims of the inceptive performances. Fluxus lays itself open to interpretation. Event scores were written with the hope that others would interpret them. Professional actors were never used. While there is no "correct" way to perform Fluxus events, traditions have arisen. One can make a distinction between a successful or appropriate performance and the concept of a "correct" (i.e. incorrect?) performance -- and the distinction has to do with the attitude of the performer. Despite the similarity of many pieces, some are more famous and are performed more often. Others are rarer, more expressionistic, more personal, and harder to re-embody. Fluxus has wrestled with the problem of change. The name of the movement is connected to the word "flow." Its nature is to continuously change through modification, variation and collaboration.
Contemporary re-playings or re-memberings exist at a different level than the original performances. While they cannot actually reconstruct an earlier event they do enhance understanding. Performing informs sensibility. With each re-playing, Mr. Anderson learns something more about Fluxus as a whole as well as about how a particular piece works. In the process of educating and entertaining an audience, he himself gains insight into the manners, mores and possible meanings of the early Fluxus era. Knowledge of Fluxus is deepened by experiencing (seeing or doing) an event. In closing Anderson urged that a liberal approach be taken to documenting, re-investigating and re-embodying the Fluxus movement.
Panelist: Michael Paha, sculptor and installation artist, Chicago. He also works on staff at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Michael Paha's art explores living environments as a means to provide another glimpse or a co-existing view of the natural world. His microcosms contain a variety of flora, fauna, soil, water and other organic materials in compositions which are carefully prepared by the artist and then allowed to "reach equilibrium." Showing videotapes of pieces ranging from the 1987 "As We Sleep" (Perimeter Gallery, Chicago) to the more recent "Erosion Table" (San Francisco, The Exploratorium, 1996) to his current installation "Someone's In the Garden" (Columbia College, Chicago), he described his work as "an examination of how things work."
Each piece stays up for a very short time, requiring minimal maintenance. While taking care to provide a safe and sustaining environment for the living things temporarily housed in the installations, he is also curious about phenomena in which they may be agents. "I am able to set up a situation to see the outcome. Will the birds make more nests with the grasses? Will the plants grow to overflow and block up the water system? Will the erosion create an interesting alluvial fan after a few weeks? When will things happen if at all?" The installations are themselves "documentation of living environments," relying on chance activities and individual remembrances as a catalysts for interpretation.
The first thing an observer notices is how an installation is laid out. The composition draws the audience further in, where details can be observed. "Every part of the space is important. A path is chosen. The sculptures are usually too large to see from one point, and even if the viewer chooses to stay in one spot it isn't for very long. ... The viewer is always compelled to go to the beginning of the structure to see where the water is coming from. As [they] ... travel up stream they will encounter many different subtleties that often provoke a pause or reflection. Where a person stops usually depends on what types of things they are interested in. ...The viewer always brings a personal history to the event."
Mr. Paha has been doing installations since 1980. He grew up on the south side of Chicago, where his main experience of nature consisted of "hanging out in cemeteries -- that was our woods." While attending art school in Vermont he found himself in a very different situation. Art became a way to maintain aspects of childhood he had enjoyed very much -- the investigative curiosity, the awareness of place, the feeling of the air, the smell of the first day of spring. "So often we forget, just go on about our work. We need to experience the sensory moment ..." One can't fully re-create or record sensory experience, but one can recall it. An installation can create a referential, co-existing, temporal reality which functions at one level like a vacation snapshot: "you experience it when you're there, [then] you remember the experience when you look at the picture." Memory is both stimulated and preserved -- it is "filled with anticipation and subject to change."
Changes occur constantly in the bio-kinetic installations, since they employ actual living matter and set loose natural functions such as erosion. Viewers "immediately relate it to the outside world. The installation is really used as a reminder of what we have around us. The pieces are orchestrated to reflect my own interests and memories, but at the same time will catch the reflections of many. These sculptures are meant as a reminder of the small bits of nature we travel through every day, a net of the feelings we project on our way ..."
Mr. Paha documents his installations in a variety of media as a record of past experience and a guide to future possibilities. New works will grow out of previous ones. "Each installation becomes information for subsequent ones." While there are undeniable limitations, even with videotape -- no smells, poor sound quality, a single viewpoint -- the documentary media provide at least a "footnote" to installations which function as documents themselves. The documentary records are thus twice removed from nature. Nevertheless, these recorded "fragments of ...[the] past are parts of the present," and possibly the future.
Panelist: Anne Britton, Assistant Librarian, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Currently working on a three-year project to process the Franklin Furnace archive of artists' books.
Anne Britton began by showing a slide of Brot und Sport by Gunnar Muller and Martin Heine. It was published in an edition of at least two and consists of a plastic container "not unlike a fast-food hamburger container," housing "a good-sized pile of mold -- ephemeral mold." This piece is part of the Franklin Furnace archive of artists' books acquired by the library of the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA) in November 1993. On first encounter, Ms. Britton thought the musty specimen might be "trash which had accidentally been packed up and moved along with the actual collection of artworks. Yet my training in archives told me to reserve judgment and above all retain provenance. I left the mold pile in its container on the shelf ... and soon came across a postmarked envelope lying nearby, covered with tell-tale mold dust." Inside the envelope were identifying forms supplied by the artists to Franklin Furnace at the time of acquisition. Had either the Franklin Furnace staff or the MoMA staff been any less thorough and professional, the nature of this artwork might have led to disinterest or even disappearance. "The point I'd like to make about the Muller and Heine mold piece regards its documentation. Clearly ... the work itself stands alone, yet is greatly enhanced by surrounding information. I should point out that the Franklin Furnace solicited both bibliographical and biographical statements from every artist represented in their archive. Just as in the case of Brot und Sport, much ephemeral art can stand on its own in time and space, yet our understanding of it is greatly enhanced by supplementary, contextualizing information."
Using this and other examples from the Franklin Furnace collection, Ms. Britton went on to discuss some of the facets of acquiring, documenting, preserving, cataloging and classifying transitory art forms, including: "several already categorized types of contemporary art such as performance art, installation art, fragile or auto-destructive art objects, mail art, web sites, and public or street art. ... There are, of course, many other forms of ephemeral art which are currently uncategorized and unnamed."
Building collections is one step in providing an historical record of ephemeral art forms. Acquisition, preservation and documentation parameters should ideally be linked in collection policy. Media choices (for any of these activities) might involve: paper; audiotape; videotape; film; microforms; photographic prints and slides; digital media, including web sites and e-journals; and artifacts in any number of media. While ephemeral art is by definition transitory, the documentation of such art must not be. Librarians must concern themselves with storage conditions for documentary records and their transfer to other media, as well as with those for primary works.
Cataloging provides intellectual access to both artworks and their documentation. The level of cataloging provided may be based on a number of considerations including the rarity, fragility, richness, historical value and relevance of the objects or documents to be cataloged. Going back to the Franklin Furnace collection, which contains both artists' books, ephemera and archival materials, Britton discussed the usefulness of the Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT), "especially ... when describing a range of visual materials and artifacts. Terms which I used most often in describing the Franklin Furnace collection include: 'performance art documents,' 'broadsides,' 'posters,' 'matchbooks,' 'organic materials,' 'artists' books,' and even 'underwear.' I should point out that the Franklin Furnace organization was a significant contributor of terms to the AAT ..." Other sources for descriptors can include artist supply or office supply catalogs. Many products used by artists for the presentation of their documentation can be identified by browsing through suppliers' catalogs.
Britton also suggested that "the style of the documentation is of particular interest to the cataloger. Documentation of ephemeral art can be either planned or unplanned. I will leave to others the discussion of how the meaning of an artwork changes when it plans on documenting itself, as opposed to simply happening freely in time, in public or in private."
"Styles of presentation can vary ... from the informal, unplanned snapshot or handwritten note to the planned, designed, and even aesthetic." Successful examples of the latter -- works which are self-documenting in reproducible detail -- included: 1) a page from a Richard Long's "In the cloud" describing his "8 day walk across Scotland / 3/4 hour in cloud / while going over Ben Macdul / the highest point of the walk / coast to coast west to east 1991"; 2) a page from Sol Lewitt's "Titled forms" giving step-by-step documentation of 1987 wall drawings at Westfalischen Kunstverein Munster; 3) Buzz Spector's 1994 accordion-fold book "Unpacking my library" representing "all the books in the artists' library, arranged in order of the height of the spine, from the tallest to the shortest, on a single shelf in a room large enough to hold them."
Mentioned as examples of installations and performances that are less easily captured were: 1) Linda Montano's and Tehching Hsieh's "One Chinese word a day while tied to Tehching Hsieh '83-'84," a two-volume book of handwritten Chinese characters and their English equivalents produced while the two artists were tied to one another for twelve months, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day; 2) Brad Brace's web site, which has changed daily for the past several months.
As examples of non-Western types of art which might also be considered ephemeral, Britton mentioned: "Buddhist sand paintings; bottle trees; cornmeal drawings in vodun religions; folk or political art such as the Bread and Puppet Theatre; and so on."
"In answer to the question posed ... 'should the ephemeral work be allowed to expire?' the librarian/archivist would say no. Libraries and archives are the memory of civilization. As bell hooks writes, 'what's valued is kept; what's not valued is thrown away.'" While we cannot always preserve the original art, we can preserve its documentation. In doing so, we provide the records on which scholars and artists of the future will base their discussions and analyses.
Panelist: Judith Hoffberg, editor, Umbrella. Co-founder and Honorary Lifetime Member, ARLIS/NA.
Judith Hoffberg opened by reiterating the importance of the ephemera and realia of contemporary art, exhorting the audience to remember that what we consider throwing away today could turn out to be the history of the 20th century rather than the detritus of the century. She also stressed that our definition of documentation must include all media and methods and must be seen as "a grouping of contextualizations: I am a context, too. ... Documentation needs to cover this. The memories of the people involved, the milieu, the personal context."
Ms. Hoffberg also stressed the important role of the collector and the need to document the collector's knowledge, aims and experiences, especially their interactions with artists. Oral histories are extremely important and, though time-consuming, should be included more often in documentary efforts.
As for artists' books, Hoffberg recalled that works made and purchased in the sixties were not really made to last, "other than the books from Dick Higgins' Something Else Press." At that time, it was a battle in most institutions (libraries and museums) to have artists' books treated as art objects rather than regular publications. For the uninterested or the untrained, it can be difficult to recognize the value of things until long after the fact. Hoffberg cited Martha Wilson, founder of Franklin Furnace, as "a visionary -- someone who knew that the book was more that the product of words on a page." She hailed the seventies as the most fruitful of times for artists' books and related art forms: "technology was not that great ... xeroxing was [considered] an amazing thing ... the mail was the medium of distribution. Documentation ... [now] may be digitized, but the hand is still important."
In spite of all the attendant problems in collecting, managing, cataloging and documenting ephemeral works of art, Ms. Hoffberg closed by reminding the audience that they are "so much more fun than traditional materials."
School of the Art Institute of Chicago